Explosions rocked the Sudanese capital Saturday as paramilitaries and the regular army traded attacks on each other's bases, days after the army warned the country was at a "dangerous" turning point.
The paramilitaries said they were in control of the presidential place as well as Khartoum airport, claims denied by the army, as civilian leaders called for an immediate ceasefire to prevent the country's "total collapse".
The eruption of violence came after weeks of deepening tensions between military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his number two, paramilitary commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, over the planned integration of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) into the regular army.
Witnesses reported "confrontations" and loud explosions and gunfire near an RSF base in south Khartoum.
Military leader Burhan has been at loggerheads with his number two, the RSF commander, over talks to finalise a deal to return the country to civilian rule and end the crisis sparked by their 2021 coup.
The RSF said its forces had taken control of Khartoum airport, after witnesses reported seeing truckloads of fighters entering the airport compound, as well as the presidential palace and other key sites.
Its claims were quickly denied by the army.
"The army headquarters, Khartoum airport, and Merowe base are under full control of the Sudanese army," an army statement said.
"The rebellious Rapid Support Forces are spreading lies that our forces attacked them to cover up their rebellious behaviour."
- 'Sweeping attack' -
Created in 2013, the RSF emerged from the Janjaweed militia that then president Omar al-Bashir unleashed against non-Arab ethnic minorities in the western Darfur region a decade earlier, drawing accusations of war crimes.
A plan to integrate the RSF into the regular army is one of the key points of contention, analysts have said.
Eleventh-hour haggling between the two men over the details has twice forced postponement of the signing of an agreement with civilian factions setting out a roadmap for the transition.
AFP reporters heard gunfire near the airport, as well near Burhan's residence and in Khartoum North. Civilians were seen running for cover as artillery exchanges rocked the streets.
Fighter jets were seen patrolling the skies over Khartoum, witnesses said.
The army said: "The air force is now carrying out... operations to quell the irresponsible actions by the Rapid Support Forces militia.."
The two sides traded blame for starting the fighting.
"The Rapid Support Forces were surprised Saturday with a large force from the army entering camps in Soba in Khartoum and laying siege to paramilitaries there," it said in a statement.
It said a "sweeping attack with all kinds of heavy and light weapons" was under way.
The army said the paramilitaries started the heavy fighting.
"Fighters from the Rapid Support Forces attacked several army camps in Khartoum and elsewhere around Sudan," army spokesman Brigadier General Nabil Abdallah told AFP.
"Clashes are ongoing and the army is carrying out its duty to safeguard the country."
Troops blocked off the bridges across the Nile linking Khartoum with its sister cities of Omdurman and Khartoum North. They also sealed off the road to the presidential palace.
- 'Slipping into abyss' -
The military's civilian interlocutors called on both sides "to immediately cease hostilities and spare the country slipping into the abyss of total collapse."
Their plea was echoed by US ambassador John Godfrey, who tweeted that he "woke up to the deeply disturbing sounds of gunfire and fighting" and was "currently sheltering in place with the embassy team, as Sudanese throughout Khartoum and elsewhere are doing".
"Escalation of tensions within the military component to direct fighting is extremely dangerous. I urgently call on senior military leaders to stop the fighting," he said.
Western governments had been warning of the dangers of all-out fighting between the rival security forces since the army issued its warning to the paramilitaries on Thursday.
Five Western governments plus the European Union said they were "deeply concerned by reports of heightened tensions in Sudan and risk of escalation between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces."
In its statement Thursday, the regular army said it was "sounding the alarm as the country is at a dangerous historical turning point".
"The risks are increasing as the RSF command mobilised and spread forces in the capital and other cities," the army said.
In recent months, Daglo has said the 2021 coup was a "mistake" that failed to bring about change in Sudan and reinvigorated remnants of Bashir's regime, which was ousted by the army in 2019 following month of mass protests.
Burhan, a career soldier from northern Sudan who rose the ranks under Bashir's three-decade rule, maintained that the coup was "necessary" to bring more groups into the political process.